By Robert K. Weiss
Robert K. Weiss is the Vice Chairman and President of the X PRIZE Foundation.
Rapid acidification of our oceans presents a challenge well suited for utilizing the incentivized competition methodology to crowdsource the genius required to create the solutions sorely needed before it's too late.
Our beautiful Blue Planet has another problem with acid in its waters. In the 1980s, "acid rain" was contaminating lakes and rivers across the Northeast. Eventually, a joint effort across state lines helped develop new air-quality standards, smokestack scrubbers and other improvements to avert the crisis, returning the region's water systems to viability.
Scientists have begun sounding the alarm bell that we have a much bigger and more complicated issue developing with water becoming more acidic, this time in our oceans. As reported last Fall in a Los Angeles Times article ("A sea change to ocean chemistry," Oct. 7, 2012), many of the world's top ocean scientists gathered in Monterey, CA recently to discuss the growing evidence of ocean acidification. The news is not good.
In the last 150 years or so - since the beginning of the industrial revolution - our oceans have become about 30% more acidic. And what this means to life in the oceans is potentially disastrous: corals and mollusks have more difficulty making shells, plankton at the base of the food chain become less viable, and whole ecosystems are potentially threatened. But as the scientists in Monterey noted, we are only just beginning to understand these impacts; and worse still, we're only beginning to understand the extent of acidification itself.
To respond, we'll need new approaches that can leap across jurisdictions and scientific disciplines, bringing together experts and resources from many institutions and organizations to think how best to solve what could become a huge problem for us all. It is clear that change is already occurring. The 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide deposited in our oceans since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution are making seawater more acidic, already affecting life in cold-water areas such the Pacific Northwest. Without change, one researcher says, by century's end our oceans will be "hot, sour and breathless."
The problem is big and complex. Our knowledge of the issues is imperfect. We know that increased carbon dioxide is a driving cause, because as CO2 is absorbed by water, it forms carbonic acid. (Think of how sweet a flat soda is: the CO2 that makes it bubble also provides the acid that counteracts the sweetness. CO2 in your soda makes it taste right but in the oceans it increases acidity.)
So, what needs to be done? It starts with substantially increasing our knowledge. 70% of the globe is covered by oceans. Dealing with acidified oceans across the entire globe is considerably more complicated than dealing with acid rain in one region of one country on one continent. Thankfully, we have some time before the full brunt of this massive problem hits. Focused research now can lead to better research in the future that will lead to comprehensive solutions to this massive challenge.
As we have done successfully in diverse areas from space flight to oil cleanup, an incentivized competition could drive privately funded research and result in innovative, orthogonal solutions.
Reducing carbon dioxide deposition is the long-term key to stabilizing the pH of the oceans. But how we get there is a very big question. It will require novel solutions from many areas of research. The leveraged incentivized competition methodology can unlock exponential growth in technologies, stimulating solutions to complicated, seemingly intractable problems. It is the X PRIZE Foundation's stock in trade.
The X PRIZE Foundation is mobilizing to attack ocean acidification. With the generous support of Wendy Schmidt, we will be launching a global competition for the development of effective and affordable pH sensors to profoundly improve our knowledge of ocean chemistry and the understanding of the global effects of ocean acidification.
This significant improvement in technology can help scientists begin to answer critical questions about our oceans: Where are the impacts of acidification the greatest? Which ecosystems are most at risk? How does the CO2 driving acidification circulate around the world's oceans? What capacity do the oceans have to deal with this change?
If the ocean dies, the planet dies. Practical answers to this problem can be found with a well designed and curated competition that will unleash the innovators. Let's make it happen. We can't afford not to.